Prototype. Don’t get comfortable. Keep your head up. That was the message at yesterday afternoon’s “Failure Workshop” at the Game Developers Conference. 6 different independent developers, responsible for titles like “World of Goo,” “Off-Road Velociraptor Safari,” and Plants vs. Zombies,” shared their development horror stories to help an audience of hundreds. Here’s what we learned from their months and sometimes years of pain.
“No amount of ‘theming’ will save a bad idea.”
Kyle Gabler, half of indie dev 2D Boy, spoke about the follow-up to PC/Wii/iPad success “World of Goo.” The title, “Robot and the Cities That Built Him,” sounded fun: a giant robot destroys a city over and over again. But the game, as Gabler describes it, was boring. Very boring. It took two months of polish before the two-person team bothered to prototype the game. With tangible proof that the core idea, while entertaining thematically, was no good, the team scrapped the project.
“The Parking Lot Theory”
Matthew Wegner and his studio Flashbang made a name for themselves with Blurst.com and the site’s hit game: “Off-Road Velociraptor Safari.” It was one of many games made for Blurst under 8 week deadlines. The goal was to attract people to a developer website with lots of quickly made games – and ideally make money off traffic. Traffic only spiked around each new game’s release then tabled; the financial strategy was a whiff.
To make money, Wegner and Co. chose to adapt “Velociraptor Safari,” the highest trafficked game, for an HD/XBLA/PSN style port. The process proved to be dull and time consuming. So they tried a new art style. That too failed.
In hindsight, Wegner admits the company slouched into the comfort zone. “It’s the Parking Lot Theory,” he said. When a man loses his keys in the parking lot, he looks below the street lights not because that’s where his keys might be, but because it’s the easiest place to look. Updating a proven game was easy. What they needed to do was make the project more fun. They needed to put more game in the game.
George Fan, the man responsible for PopCap’s most recent game, Plants vs. Zombies, told the tale of Cat-Mouse Foosball, his 2001 failure that nearly scared him out of the industry. At that time, Fan was more artist than designer. He drew level layouts and character designs, creating the game in his head long before touching a computer.
What Fan learned: you can’t draw games, because you can’t keep the image in your head. A video game has too many variables – one action could cause any number of reactions. The design process isn’t static like drawing a picture. To see a video game, Fan echoed Gabler: prototype. Creating a rough version of the game often reveals if the project’s fun. Or at least if it works.
Fan loaded up a recreated demo for Cat-Mouse Foosball. Cats and mice scurried through the screen colliding into red barriers. It was a mess and Fam let out a good-hearted laugh. Without failures like this, he might have never made it so far.